(Source: CD/Nathan Morley, Vatican News)

Islamic prayers were held on Friday in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia basilica for the first time in 86 years.

TV pictures showed crowds forming at checkpoints surrounding old Istanbul before the main doors were opened. Over 20,000 policemen patrolled the area as president Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended Friday prayers along with several hundred special guests.

Erdogan issued a decree on July 10 ordering the historic Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers on July 24.

His order followed a ruling from Turkey’s top administrative court which revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a secular State museum.

The conversion sparked criticism from Church and political leaders, who said the conversion for Muslim worship risks causing religious divisions.

At the Angelus address on 12 July, Pope Francis said he was “very saddened” when he thought about Hagia Sophia.

Example of religious harmony

Since 1934, the building has been a living example of religious harmony in the form of stone. In recent years it has become the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey, drawing over 3.5 million visitors during 2019.

Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul.

Reacting to the news of the conversion in early July, the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said Hagia Sophia belonged not only to those who own it at the moment but to all humanity.

For its part, UNESCO said that the building was inscribed on its world heritage list as a museum, which binds the Turkish state to ensure that “no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property.”

Turkish president: “Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains”

But President Erdogan said last week that the basilica’s reconversion into a mosque was “Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains. It was the greatest dream of our youth… It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.”

Speaking to the media after the prayers today – according to a press release posted on the website of the Turkish Presidency – Erdogan added that the mosque will remain the “cultural heritage” of “the entire humanity” which “people of all religions can visit”, but underlining that it was his wish that the building “will continue forever to serve all the believers as a mosque.”

More on Novena on the controversial Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion:

Greek president lobbies Pope to pressure Turkey to backtrack on Hagia Sophia

Jesuit Islam expert: “Hypocritical” to say ‘Christianity has lost a church’ with Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion

Cardinal Schönborn “dreams” of Hagia Sophia becoming “centre for the encounter of religions”

Serbian Patriarch appeals for joint Muslim-Christian worship in Hagia Sophia in sign of “historical symbiosis, tolerance and trust”

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.